4 Crisis Communications Lessons From Incident At St. Louis Community College-Meramec

jpg-Mueller-CommunicationsSafety and security issues at educational institutions are commanding the nation’s attention. After countless killings, shootings and violence in schools and college campuses, one would think that all school districts, colleges and universities possess both a greater awareness of the importance of communication and the ability to execute a crisis plan.

At the very least, you would hope all educational institutions would recognize a crisis in safety or security and deliver the transparency and communication that must follow.

Case Study: An Assault At St. Louis Community College at Meramec

The execution of the crisis media or communications plan after an alleged assault of a female in a restroom at the college should be reviewed by other educational institutions, community organizations and businesses throughout the United States. Here’s how the story unfolded.

A KSDK story on Monday, April 22, 2013, reported that a female student described an alleged assault that happened on Thursday, April 18, 2013, and how the alleged attacker was later released by law enforcement.  “He is ordered off campus and cannot return to campus until this is adjudicated,” Paul Banta, Meramec Campus police chief, told reporter Casey Nolen (@CaseyNolen). “All of our guys know what he looks like and if he shows back up on campus, I’m hoping we’ll locate him before he has a chance to do harm to anybody.”

Lesson No. 1: Hope is not a strategy in law enforcement or any other human endeavor. The messages that were communicated:

  • Law enforcement told someone under criminal investigation that they better not show their face around here.  (How often does that inhibit criminal behavior?)
  • And if he does come back, we know what he looks like and it’s hoped we get to him before he possibly hurts someone.

Better messages could have been:

  • The cooperation between faculty, students and campus police helped us apprehend the suspect.
  • We turned the investigation over to the St. Louis County Prosecutor and we are confident the case will be handled appropriately.
  • All campus police officers were briefed on the incident and the subsequent arrest.
  • We are increasing our presence throughout the campus.

Reporter Joel Currier (@joelcurrier) of stltoday.com posted a story with the following:

“Banta would not identify the male student, citing an ongoing investigation. He said police did not publicize the incident immediately after the attack because they already had the man in custody.

“ ‘We didn’t see the need to cause hysteria on the campus,’ Banta said. ‘I don’t think we had anything to gain when the guy is under arrest and the threat was eliminated.’

“The alleged attacker has been barred from all St. Louis Community College campuses pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing and possible criminal charges.”

Lesson No. 2: Organizations gain trust and credibility when they tell the truth.

The Meramec administration’s lack of transparency and communication is now causing more problems than if the administration and police had told students about an alleged crime.  The suspect was in custody because of cooperation between students, faculty and campus police—this was a positive message!  Plus, it was an ideal time to remind students, faculty and staff to be vigilant and aware of the possibility of danger at all times.

Banta was quoted on the KMOX radio website, “… he was told not to return to campus or he would be arrested for trespassing,” when asked why the suspect was originally released.

The story on the KMOX Radio website continued, “When asked why no press release was issued to warn others about a suspect that was now released,  Banta said legally his department didn’t have to, and that their decision had nothing to do with public relations.

“ ‘The decision at the time was that the threat was removed from the campus by reason of his arrest,” said Banta.  ‘And we were pretty sure we could keep him off campus because all the officers were aware of what he looked like.’ ”

Lesson 3: Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States are emphasizing openness, transparency and communication with its citizens to create, maintain or enhance relationships with the public.  (Look no further than the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision to release photos of the suspects who planted the bombs at the Boston Marathon. This was the ultimate in crowd sourcing in a criminal investigation.)  And just because you know what a suspect looks like doesn’t equate to a law enforcement agency’s ability to keep that suspect from entering one of 18 buildings and hundreds of classrooms on a 78-acre campus with dozens of entrances.

(I attended an event at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in December of last year during the holiday break. There were flyers posted at the entrances of the buildings that alerted people to an assault that occurred on the campus, cautioned people to be aware of their surroundings, and provided the campus police department’s contact information.)

Jevon Mallory

Jevon MalloryOn Tuesday, April 23, Jevon Mallory, 18, of St. John–a suburb of St. Louis–was charged with assault on school property, a class-D Felony in Missouri.  St. Louis Community College responded with a statement on its website and a post on the Meramec Campus Facebook page.

KSDK’s story on Tuesday had statements from DeLancy Smith, Director of Communications for St. Louis Community College and Robert Stewart, the College’s Chief of Police, that were given at what looked like a press conference.

“An individual can be held up to 24 hours pending the application of a warrant,” Smith said.

“We knew we had probable cause to arrest him, but because the officers interceded so quickly in the situation, we don’t know exactly what his intent was,” Stewart said.

Lesson 4: The press conference required the three Rs of crisis communications—regret, reform and repay. Here are some messages for each area:

  • Regret: The safety of our students, faculty and staff are our top priority.  The Meramec Campus has an outstanding safety record.  However, any compromise of safety or security is of the highest concern for our campus administration and police department. We’re sorry for the lack of communication and the manner in which this incident was handled. We apologize to the student involved in the incident for the handling of this situation.
  • Reform: We will review our campus police department’s communications policies and procedures regarding all incidents. We will review our procedures as they relate to handing over cases to the St. Louis County Prosecutor.  We will increase police presence throughout the campus.
  • Repay: We will provide counseling and any other support requested by the student involved in the incident.  The report on the review of the police department’s communications policies and procedures will be published on the campus website, newspaper and social media channels.

The Meramec crime statistics show a safe and secure environment–no arrests and only five referrals for liquor and drug abuse. However, inactivity or a lack of incidents can never be an excuse for inadequate preparation or execution.

Conclusion

When educational institutions or other organizations review this series of events, they should ask the following questions:

  1. Is our organization prepared for a crisis and to handle media inquiries?
  2. If the answer to question no. 1 was “no,” is our organization going to review or develop its crisis communications plan?
  3. Does our organization possess the leadership and ability to effectively manage a similar situation?
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7 responses

  1. It seems as if police departments need help as well with their messaging and handling of a crisis… the press conference that Boston PD held after the capture of one of the Boston bombers in Watertown was out of control in terms of logistics and the messaging, it wasn’t consistent. They were stellar in the capture of the guy, but the communication following was not the best.

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a front-page story on the subject of this post: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/st-louis-community-college-under-fire-for-how-it-handled/article_72636dfd-f003-58bf-bae8-7e4125c59f3d.html

  3. Great and timely article Joe Mueller.

  4. Apparently SLCC system has the same mindset as Schnuck’s stores. The chose not to get out ahead of the story they would rather play catch up and hope that they don’t blow it again. In my opinion it is one thing to shoot yourself in the foot but it is completely different to shoot yourself in the head. At least if you shoot yourself in the foot that can probably be fixed, option #2 not so much.

    1. John,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s hoped that this organization and others can learn from this.
      -joe

  5. Faculty, students, and staff heard about this from the media before being informed by the college. The individual returned to campus on Tuesday (5 days after the initial assault) and could be found attending class. This is unacceptable, in so many ways.

    1. Jeanene,
      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I hope this organization and others will be better prepared to handle the communications surrounding a situation like this one and others.

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